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Tobacco plant holds diabetes drug

23rd March 2009

Scientists at Italy's University of Verona have bred a genetically modified form of tobacco as a potential treatment for type 1 diabetes, the latest development in a field known as molecular farming.

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The researchers said that they had managed to breed a form of tobacco that is potent against diabetes and other autoimmune disorders, containing a protein known as interleukin-10 known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Although there has not yet been much news about other medicines derived from the process, molecular farming seeks to reduce the use of factories in producing drugs by breeding plants that produce the drugs within themselves.

Although progress has been slow, a number of agrochemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta, have been looking at ways such ways to make complex protein drugs in plants.

Tobacco and potatoes are two favourites among researchers trying to derive such compounds, which are known as biopharmeceuticals, or plant-made pharmaceuticals.

Current technology limits the production of antibodies for medicines and vaccines to a factory procedure using fermentation in stainless steel containers.

Mario Pezzotti of the University of Verona, who led the study, said that it is his belief that production of the medicines could be sped up if they were grown organically, since plants are the most efficient producers of proteins in the world.

Pezzotti said that tobacco is a fantastic plant for research purposes because in addition to being easy to transform genetically, an entire plant can be regenerated from a single cell.

Tobacco company Philip Morris has displayed interest in the EU-funded study's finding, and has pledged to support a conference on molecular farming and other plant-based medicines in Verona.

The researchers' current plan is to measure responses to the drug in mice specially bred for auto-immune disease.

Testing on humans will follow.

Yet another tobacco-based substance known as glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD65) will be used in tandem with the protein in tests on diabetic patients, in which small doses of both will be administered over an extended period of time.

To determine its effects upon diabetes, the Diamyd biotech company in Sweden is already making clinical trials of factory-made GAD65.

Although the process of molecular farming, also known as biomanufacturing or pharming, has yet to follow through with its promises by producing its first commercial product, the Israeli Protalix BioTherapeutics is in the process of conducting advanced clinical tests on an enzyme treatment involving the use of carrot cells.

The derived molecule will be used to treat Gaucher disease, with a projected availability of late 2009.

The first pharmaceutical protein to be derived from plant sources was human albumin, produced nearly 20 years ago in potato and tobacco plants.

Several other biopharmaceuticals are approaching commercialisation, including antibodies that would prevent both dental caries and certain types of (non-Hodgkins) lymphoma, and veterinary medicines.

 

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